For the benefit of those portraying the Sixth Mississippi Infantry in next spring's 150th Shiloh event who do not have access to Grady Howell's excellent history of the Sixth, "Going to Meet the Yankees", I have taken the liberty of transcribing the section in Mr. Howell's text which covers the attack of the Sixth Miss at Shiloh. I trust that as the excerpt is properly credited to Mr. Howell, I have violated no copyright or proprietary regulations. If I have inadverdently done so, mods please feel free to remove the thread. FYI, I have not copied Mr. Howell's footnotes in the transcription. Otherwise, with the exception of a brigade alignment diagram and a map, the transcription is at it appears in the book.
Co. A "Rankin Rough and Readies"
6th Mississippi Infantry Regt
Excerpt from Grady Howell’s Going to Meet the Yankees, pages 80-90 and 92-94 inclusive (page 91 comprises a map of the 6th Mississippi Infantry’s route of attack):
“Cleburne’s Brigade was aligned in the following order: ‘Twenty-third Tennessee on the right, Sixth Mississippi next, Fifth Tennessee next, Twenty-fourth Tennessee on the left, Fifteenth Arkansas (the renumbered First Arkansas) deployed as skirmishers in front of the line, with their reserve near the left, and the Second Tennessee en ‘echelon 500 yards in (the) rear of my left flank, with a strong line of skirmishers covering the interval between its left and that of the Twenty-fourth Tennessee.’ On the field Cleburne’s line configuratively looked like this: (There follows a diagram of Cleburne’s brigade deployment.)
At daylight the first attack was made by Federal skirmishers who stumbled upon Hardcastle’s Battalion, pickets of Hardee’s Corps, after which Hardee ordered a general advance. Lieutenant Kelsey of the 23rd Tennessee, positioned to the immediate right of the Sixth, described what happened next:
‘Hardee’s line, three miles in length, without the sound of bugle or drum, advanced silently and grandly toward the Federal encampment, followed by the sturdy solid lines of Bragg, Polk, and Breckinridge. The morning was bright and clear, a typical spring morning; the air was fresh and bracing; and when the sun rose bright and clear it added splendor to the scene. Every soldier had braced himself for the battle and went forward determined to reclaim the ground recently lost, or die in the attempt.’
The ground trembled under the pressure of thousands of moving feet, wheels, and hooves. At the shout of “Forward” the Sixth commenced its advance. ‘We moved slowly ahead, ready for the charge,’ Lieutenant Thompson of the ‘Simpson Fencibles’ recalled, ‘then picked up speed. Soon we were practically running, everyone beginning to yell.’ After advancing a short distance Gen. Johnston and his staff happened upon Cleburne’s columns as they double-timed across a hundred acre field fringed to the north by woods. An aide, Col. Preston Johnston, noted that ‘Cleburne’s brigade moved in beautiful order, and with loud and inspiring cheers in the direction of the (enemy’s) advanced camp.’
The Sixth Mississippi’s columns kept reasonably good order in the open fields as the attack gradually gained momentum into a full-fledged charge. On crossing the fence lines and entering the woods the regiment’s columns lost their cohesion and by the time the unit was well into the woods an ever-increasing number of winded soldiers had fallen behind. Upon entering the woods the regiment came under a short telling fire from the retreating Union picket line. The sounds of the picket’s muskets grew increasingly louder as the Sixth struggled on.
After advancing quite some distance Thornton’s rebels came upon the enemy’s first line of encampments. These encampments belonged to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and were occupied by the 53d Ohio Volunteer Infantry supported by two sections of field artillery. One of these batteries was positioned directly in front of the Sixth’s line of march.
In his post-battle report Col. Cleburne described his brigade’s approach to this position:
‘I was soon in sight of the enemy’s encampments, behind the first of which he had formed his line of battle. He was very advantageously posted and overlapped my left flank by at least half a brigade. His line was lying down behind the rising ground on which his tents were pitched, and opposite my right he made a breastwork of logs and bales of hay.
Everywhere his musketry and artillery at short range swept the open spaces between the tents in his front with an iron storm that threatened certain destruction to every living thing that would dare to cross them. An almost impassable morass, jutting out from the foot of the height on which the enemies tents stood, impeded the advance of my center, and finally caused a wide opening in my line, the Fifth Tennessee and the regiments on its left kept to the left of this swamp, and the Sixth Mississippi and Twenty-third Tennessee advanced on its right. My own horse bogged down in it and threw me, and it was with great difficulty (that) I got out.
My brigade was soon on the verge of the encampments and the battle began in earnest. Trigg’s Battery, posted on some high ground in the woods in the rear, opened over the heads of my men, but so thick were the leaves, he could only see in one direction, while the enemy were playing on him from several. The result was he was unable to accomplish much, and was ordered to a new position. I had no artillery under my command from this time forward.’
When the Sixth reached the foot of the hill on which the Ohioans were posted, Col. Thornton halted his regiment and redressed his columns for battle. At this time the unit was involved in a hot firefight with Federal skirmishers, who were in possession of a branch which ran in an easterly direction along the base of the hill. The regiment was also drawing scattered fire from the main Union line. However, casualties were light at this stage because the slope of the hill and wooded terrain temporarily shielded the men from effective enemy fire. Sergeant T.B. Cox of the ‘Rankin Greys’ vividly described the situation: ‘Col. Thornton, standing cool and unflinching in the rear of the regiment and within ten paces of the position I held in the line, ordered a ‘lie down’, then a charge, then again ‘lie down’, another charge, at which the regiment cleared the branch and opened with their Enfields upon the enemy, pushing up to their line of battle and their encampment.’
Remnants of the Federal picket line quickly fell back to their main line with Thornton’s men in hot pursuit. One blue-coated captain excitedly exclaiming to his colonel that ‘The rebels out there are thicker than fleas on a dog’s back!’ The Mississippians reloaded their weapons on the run as they charged 150 yards up the incline through smoke and thickly concentrated blackjack oak and underbrush. The time was approximately 7:45 a.m.
As each of the regiment’s companies individually struggled through the woods and boggy mire with their soldiers yelling and firing at anything that moved in front of them, the attacking columns were unable to keep any semblance of continuity. Then the Mississippians saw light ahead as the marshy bottoms and tangling vines broke off into a large clearing on the side of the hill up which they moved. The clearing was locally known as Rhea’s Field.
Battling his way through the dense underbrush, Lieutenant Thompson left the only detailed account of the charge when he later recorded:
‘The bullets started to rain thick and fast. Little clouds of smoke appeared, and we heard the cracking noise of timber being splintered by the bullets. This was my first experience in being shot at, and I was as scared as the next man. Presently I began to see men on the ground and soon realized they were hurt. At first I couldn’t see their faces. Maybe I didn’t want to see them. The first wounded man I recognized was my Uncle Henry’s eldest son, cousin James Mangum, a private in my company. He had been shot in the face. I wanted to stop and help him, but everyone was moving forward – all seemed to be hollering at the top of their lungs. We just had to get at those Federals who were shooting at us; therefore there was no time to help the wounded.
I did manage to tell James, as I stopped briefly beside him, to take shelter behind a large oak. Most of these men on the ground were our close friends, neighbors, kinfolk. I saw Stephen Gordon, but knew I could not help him. His eyes were glazing over. He was dead. Next I came to Elias McClendon. He was badly wounded. It was awful, but I had to keep on moving. I had not gone far when a sudden pain hit me. My legs folded and I was on the ground. I had been yelling, but the fall knocked the breath out of me and I was quiet.
My cousin James called to me that he seemed to be blind, but had heard my cry when I was hit and he recognized my voice. I tried to drag myself in his direction, but I couldn’t move. This really frightened me. I must have fainted, for the next thing I knew, someone had me by the shoulders and was dragging me out of the line of fire. He helped me to get back to the hospital area…I kept wanting to go back after James, but owing to the heavy firing, they wouldn’t let me do it.’
While Thornton’s companies were fighting to clear the creek of Yankees, and get through the undergrowth, Gen. Sherman double-timed the 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry into position immediately behind their empty encampment. As these infantrymen rapidly threw together a patch-work breastworks two sections of Waterhouse’s Battery were wheeled into position behind them. The half-awake Union line was then ordered to assume the prone position and by so doing placed themselves squarely in the line of attack of the Sixth Mississippi. The Ohioans primed, cocked, and leveled their Austrian muskets downhill as they nervously awaited the Confederate onslaught. Lt. Col. Duke of the 53rd remarked: ‘The regiment held its fire until an opportune time.’
The Sixth was the first regiment of Cleburne’s Brigade to get through the tanglewood and morass and reach the edge of the woods near the top of the hill. Then without waiting for the rest of the brigade to emerge, the regiment’s sturdy grey waves, bayonets bristling, burst out of the woods with their battle-flags fluttering amid the chorus of hundreds of high-pitched rebel yells. Hot on its heels was the 23rd Tennessee.
As the Sixth’s ten companies swept up the hill they were immediately caught in a perilous position as they came face-to-face with the 53rd. From that point on Sherman’s half-dressed, semi-prepared line held all of the advantages of battle over Thornton’s exposed Mississippians.
The Sixth’s charging columns were momentarily broken by the enemy’s standing tents as the fired-up soldiers raced pell mell through the vacant enemy camp, but the men paid little attention to this as they anxiously pressed forward. Then, according to Sergeant Cox, before the regiment reached the Union line, it met with a ‘cloud-burst of shot, shell, and shrapnel;’ and the result was staggering.
At a distance of less than fifty yards the entire blue line some 600 strong supported by Waterhouse’s Battery of three and one-half and four and one-half inch rifled cannon opened a terrific enfilading fire into the hapless Mississippians. Numerous gaps instantly appeared in the Confederates’ already ruptured parallel columns with the result being a quick and bloody repulse.
In must testimony of the ferocity of the enemy fire eighteen year old Pvt. Benjamin R. Ford, a Copiah County farmer in the ‘Crystal Spring Guards’, went down with five ‘Gun Shots’ smashing into his right thigh and leg. Excruciating pain instantly flashed through his body as ‘grape shot’ and Minie Balls ripped into his thigh while simultaneously a Minie Ball tore into his leg. Miraculously he survived the battle and war and kept his leg, but he lost the muscle functioning of that part of his anatomy and was severely crippled for life.
Severely stung, Thornton’s surviving troops promptly fell back down the slope 25 to 50 yards before reforming their shot torn ranks under the excited urging of their field officers. They then counterattacked pushing back up into the empty bullet-riddled camp. At that moment Sherman’s Ohioans unleashed yet another carpet of lead and iron into the bloodied regiment. Under this horrific fusillade the entire Confederate line buckled as the remnants of all ten companies disintegrated into small, ragged mobs. Scores of men fell dead and maimed, and the overzealous assault instantly crumbled.
The flag bearer was killed in the first volley, and Col. Thornton quickly grabbed the shot-torn banner to rally his shaken command. Smoke covered the field as the regiment ‘drew upon it the fire of the entire Federal force in its front and right.’ Large numbers of grey and butternut clad bodies covered the ground as the shock and confusion of the scene was grotesquely amplified by the continued shrieks of pain of the regiment’s wounded and dying. Union Adjutant E. C. Dawes of the 53rd recalled: ‘The first fire of our men was very effective. The Confederate line fell back, rallied, came forward, received another volley, and again fell back.’
The fragmented regiment recoiled and again charged forward only to meet the same fate. Corporal W.W. Robinson of the ‘Rankin Greys’ remembered: ‘Our Col. J. J. Thornton was severely wounded while leading his Regiment carrying the Flag. Also Major Robert Lowry was wounded, all the men who attempted to carry the flag was shot down. Finally Lieut. Cooper of Company E grasped the flag and led the men.’ Seven bearers were reported shot down carrying the Sixth’s regimental standard.
Col. Cleburne, an eye-witness to the slaughter, sadly noted the regiment’s plight in his battle report:
‘Again and again the Sixth Mississippi, unaided, charged the enemy’s line, and it was only when the regiment had lost 300 officers and men killed and wounded, out of an aggregate of 425, that it yielded and retreated in disorder over its own dead and dying. Colonel Thornton and Major Lowry, the field officers, were both wounded. It would be useless to enlarge on the courage and devotion of the Sixth Mississippi. The facts as recorded speak louder than any words of mine.’
With all regimental organization lost, the unit was left in shambles. Its companies were shot to pieces with many of their officers either killed or wounded. Each of the companies lost over half of their men. The survivors quickly fell back in disorder to the edge of the wooded incline still firing at will towards the Union position. By 8 o’clock a.m., within a period of approximately fifteen minutes, the flower of the Sixth Mississippi was destroyed.
Soldiers saw their friends and fellow patriots cut down the by the continuous and murderous barrage of Yankee cannon and musket fire. Several unidentified members of the ‘Rockport Steel Blades’ who made it back to the tree line, later eulogized a friend who did not: ‘We saw his mangled corpse as he lay stark and still on Shiloh’s grewsome and death strewn battlefield, with a bullet through his head. Poor Jake Siebe! You were brave, you were true, and you died as a soldier should die in the thickest of the fight, with glory wrapped around you.’
Another solider, 2nd Lieut. Lockwood of Company F, recalled of his friend Lieut. Thomas H. Willis:
‘We were both wounded on the sixth day of April, 1862, at the battle of Shiloh, while charging the enemy’s breast works to capture a battery which was playing on our ranks with terrible effect. We were carried to the field hospital and laid side by side on a pallet made by spreading out wet blankets on the ground. We lay and talked over events of the day until the voice of my comrade grew weaker, his breath shorter, and his heart grew still. I lay with my hand upon his shoulder and watched as his noble spirit took its flight from that dark and bloody battlefield.’
The regiment’s remnants held onto the littered ground along the edge of the woods while the rest of the brigade assaulted Sherman’s line. The Twenty-third Tennessee also attacked on its own and suffered a similar fate, though not nearly as tragic. However, its survivors were rallied with great difficulty. Finally two brigades of Gen. Bragg’s Corps crashed into the rear of the Sixth, and with their firepower plus the firepower of the Fifth Tennessee and Fifteenth Arkansas, on the left, caught the panicking Ohioans in a crossfire and forced them from their positions. Sergeant Cox, though wounded, witnessed that Sherman’s ‘obstinate stand was turned into a rout.’ He also reported that two pieces of Union artillery were captured and the rest forced to withdraw. From the Union standpoint Adjutant Dawes bitterly testified that within minutes of the bloodbath administered to the Sixth his Colonel fearfully yelled out ‘Retreat and save yourselves!’ and the 53rd Ohio promptly did just that.
Bragg’s Brigades filtered through the ragged remains of the Sixth, passed over the abandoned breastworks of the enemy, and disappeared into the smoke filled woods opposite. The sounds of battle moved with them into the distance, leaving behind a scene of ruin and carnage. Over 300 of the regiment’s number were strewn about, lying singly and in heaps in the area between the woods, creek bed, and encampment. Many of the bodies were so badly mutilated that surviving friends and relatives were hard put to recognize their comrades’ corpses on the field. Blood ran down the slope in rivulets while military hardware lay scattered everywhere amid the broken regiment. Years later Col. William Preston Johnston, an observer on the field poignantly wrote: ‘The impetuous courage and tenacity of this magnificent regiment deserved a better fate.’
Of Thornton’s ten companies only about ninety men were physically able to continue battle. Sixty of these quickly reformed under the command of the regiment’s senior surviving officer, Captain A. Y. Harper of the ‘East Mississippi Greys’, and pressed forward. The remaining soldiers were either too stunned, begrieved, or missing to continue fighting. Col. Cleburne later stated:
‘About half of the Twenty-third Tennessee and 60 men of the Sixth Mississippi had reformed. With these I advanced directly to my front, through the enemy’s encampment, the enemy having retreated as soon as my left had broken their right. Colonel Patterson of the Eighth Arkansas, connected his regiment with my remnants of two regiments, and remained fighting with me until about 12 or 1 o’clock. At this time Captain Harper, commanding the remnant of the Sixth Mississippi, marched it to the rear. It’s terrible loss in the morning, the want of all its field and most of its company officers, had completely disorganized it and unfitted it for further service.’
The sixty men who went with Harper soon blended into Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson’s mixed division of Bragg’s Corps. As a component of this division Harper’s sixty troopers viciously fought their way over bitterly contested ground three miles past their regiment’s initial point of contact, an endeavor which subsequently helped lead to the turning of Union Gen. Prentiss’ right flank located in the ‘Hornet’s Nest’.
It was around 1 p.m. however, that Harper’s men were marched over by Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s Reserve Corps and were ordered to fall back and regroup. Lieut. Pat Henry, slightly wounded, remembered, ‘We retired a short distance to the rear, reformed, and counted off.’ Two hours later Confederate Gen. Daniel Ruggles’ sweating veterans rolled 62 assorted cannon hub-to-hub into the last position held by Harper’s 60 men and sent barrage after barrage of artillery fire slamming into Prentiss’ position.
Harper’s exhausted veterans then fell back to the Yankee camps and went into bivouac for the night. There, memories of the day’s action weighed heavily upon the mind of every man as they were finally able to relax and recount what had happened. The survivors soon concerned themselves with the spoils of war found in the captured enemy camps. One of Cleburne’s volunteers remarked:
‘We had marched two days and slept on our arms two nights with scanty rations, and entered the fight Sunday morning without a bite to eat; but Sunday night we slept in fine tents with a profusion of blankets and cots, crackers and cheese, nuts and apples, and parched coffee by the barrel.’
On reaching one of Sherman’s vacant campsites near the scene of that morning’s holocaust Lieutenants Henry and B. M. Melton, both wounded, reported to the field hospital for medical attention. Shortly thereafter they met an old spirit-lifting friend of theirs whom they had not seen for quite some time as Henry later recounted:
‘We were lying on the ground in front of a little cabin, an improvised hospital, awaiting our turn with the over-worked surgeons, when our old Superintendent (Bushrod Johnson) at the Military College (in Nashville) now a Brigadier General, who had been wounded in the battle, with a bullet in his stomach, rode up to the hospital alone;
He was from Ohio, but a true confederate – Melton and I went to him, and helped him off his horse and laid him on the ground – He was glad to see us; after inquiring as to our wounds, he asked us to ‘look in the back pocket of his uniform coat and get a Yankee news paper, that some of his boys had picked up on the battlefield, that he wanted to read the News.’ He bore his suffering heroically; we being called by the Surgeons, that it was our time, left him there reading his paper.’
Later that night Lieut. Thompson met the Union ‘hero of the day’, as his memoirs recall: ‘On the night of the sixth I lay in a fence corner on pine needles. Our prized prisoner of war, Federal General Ben Prentiss, had been brought to the rear near our hospital tents, and that evening I had a chance to talk to him briefly.’ In the course of their conversation, Prentiss, angry and frustrated, told Thompson and a group of other rebel officers that ‘Grant at the outbreak of the battle was 5 miles down the river on a drunk at a private home.’ These charges were later said to be false.
For the pitiful remnants of the Sixth Mississippi, their participation at the Battle of Shiloh was over. That night it rained heavily once more and Union gunboats on the Tennessee River shelled the Confederate lines periodically every fifteen minutes with two shells from their naval cannon. There were several near hits on members of the regiment but no one was reported seriously injured by this continuous cannonade, and the only casualties sustained were from a lack of sleep.
In the confusion which typified the Battle of Shiloh, Cleburne lost contact with the Sixth and did not regain touch with it until April 9th at Corinth. The men lay on their arms that night neither going forward nor backward.
The sights and sounds witnessed by the survivors of the Sixth Regiment during the battle were surely comparable to the woeful lyrics left behind by an anonymous Mississippian who also participated in the bloodletting:
‘The wounded men were crying
For help from everywhere
While others who were dying
Were offering God their prayer:
‘Protect my wife and children,
As consistent with Thy will.’
Such were the prayers I heard
That night on Shiloh Hill.’
On the second day of the battle, April 7th, reawakened Confederate efforts to destroy Grant’s army were blunted, and the Union troops in turn moved on the offensive. Grant, heavily reinforced during the night slowly began to push southward to reclaim his lost ground.
Beauregard, who now commanded the Confederate army after the death of Gen. Johnston, was hard-pressed to scrape together a rear-guard sufficient enough to fend off the advancing Yankees so that his shattered army could retreat. However, he was finally able to form a thin rear guard line near Shiloh Church, and as historian Thomas L. Connelly records: ‘By 4 p.m. the last of the Army was on the road to Corinth. Blinded by a cold rain, sleet, and hail, the miserable column stretched eight miles over the muddy roads.’
Tennessee Private Edwin H. Rennolds, a participant, described the retreat:
‘The night of the 7th was another of incessant rain, and next morning we arose drenched to the skin, but continued our retreat. The roads were filled with wagons and artillery, and the troops wound their way through the thick woods on either side of the road and were soon scattered and commingled in chaotic and indescribable disorder.’
The gaunt, exhausted survivors of the Sixth Infantry were scattered within that eight mile procession. Their wounded and dying were transported like cord-wood in creaking wagons, limped alone, or were carried by physically-drained comrades. The latter were far more lucky for each jolt of the wagons met with a chorus of moans. Several members died en route, and the regiment was forced to abandon much of its arms and equipments on the retreat. Eventually, however, the weary, wet, bloody soldiers limped or rode back into Corinth. Lieut. Thompson was one of the last members of the Sixth to leave the scene of the battle as his writings reveal: ‘I stayed in the battle area on April 7 and 8. On the 8th I rode, in much suffering, on a caisson to Corinth, where I was given a furlough to go home and recover my wound.’
Many of the regiment’s numbers were destined never to leave the battlefield. They were the corpses left behind and later mass-buried by Grant’s army after the battle. 1st Lieut. ‘Bob’ Vanarsdale of the ‘Quitman Southrons’, killed in the savage fighting of Sunday morning, was among these. A friend later recorded that his body ‘was heaped in a long trench with many other dead, mangled soldiers.’ The wind murmuring through the surrounding woodlands, served as their requiem.